Shotgun Christmas

This weekend my wife and I’ll go hunting for our Christmas tree. While doing this, I’ll be recalling other adventures in the woods. This is the first of three linked stories:

Chapter One – New York City

Growing up in Manhattan, my idea of the forest was the little woods in the parks I played in. The lore of Christmas tree hunting was restricted. My father, sister, and I visited a vacant lot where a gentleman from Maine set up shop every year. This was in the days before massive trailer truckloads of trees made their way to the city after being cut in September or October. His product was uneven, and from his own acreage somewhere in the mysterious “North Woods.” The tree stand had been an empty waste place of weeds and broken brick the night before but became a transformed place through scent, texture, and color. 

Our selection procedure was direct. You tried to get there as early as you could due to the failing light of December. Evaluating a tree in the near dark was. You strolled the aisles of trees looking for likely candidates. Running your hands along spruce branches, you tried to determine if a tree seemed to have good color, was the right size and that the needles didn’t fall away with a light touch. If it made that cut, you took a more complete look. Out of the rack and onto the snow, already covered with a carpet of needles, came the tree. My father would give it a sharp bang on the ground while my sister and I watched how many needles the tree shed. If it dropped too many back into the rack it went. If it passed, we spun it in place and evaluated the thin spots, bushy areas, and overall shape. If it passed this test, it went onto the car and back to the apartment—end of the hunt.

Chapter Two – Somewhere Outside of Portland

Sometime towards the end of the 1960’s I was introduced to another form of tree hunt. I had accepted a job in an operating room at a small hospital in Maine. Just a day before Christmas Eve, the schedule of the operating room was slow. Only emergencies and a few scheduled procedures were in the offing. The operating room Director looked over at George and I ( the only two males on the staff) and detailed us to take the afternoon and hunt out a tree for the department party. I expected that George and I’d be gone no more than an hour. George had other ideas. Climbing into his pickup truck, he quickly pulled out a nearly frozen six-pack of beer. He looked at me and said: “let’s head over to my place, get some shotguns, and see if we come across anything interesting. ” OK”, I said  agreeably; after all, I was on a hunt, not working, and there was free beer. 

George had a large family. Everyone of age to hunt, if they liked to or not, got a deer ticket every season. Those with no particular love or aptitude for deer hunting passed them along to George. George ensured that his large family always had venison in the freezer. George knew his way about the woods and hunting.

By the time we arrived at George’s house, the near-frozen beer had chilled us terribly. A few shots of peppermint schnapps were needed to defrost. By the time we hit the woods, we felt nice and warm. But, anything in the woods easily eluded us. Around 3 PM, we realized that we wouldn’t find anything to shoot at, our “buzz” was severely faded, and we had no Christmas tree. We began seriously hunting for spruces. The woods around us were mostly pine, and we had to walk a considerable piece to find spruces. Our diligence was rewarded, and we stumbled on a small copse of balsams. Any of them would be appropriate. George looked at me and indicated a nice seven-footer. We nodded to each other but then simultaneously realized that our plan was flawed. We were about a mile from the truck. We had no saw. And had to be back at the hospital in about an hour.

Well, we got our tree and got back to the hospital in time. We both had hangovers from running through snow-covered woods with seven-foot spruce on our shoulders while coming down from a lousy peppermint schnapps high. Bea, the operating room supervisor, said nothing as she eyed the tree and took in the shredded stump. The long look she gave it told everything. “How did you boys cut this poor thing down? with your teeth?” George looked at her, grinned, and said, “No. Buckshot”.

Stay tuned for my next Christmas Tree adventure in Maine.

Evil Santa

I met my wife at work. Over about half a year, a comfortable working relationship began to evolve into an even more comfortable partnership. Not long following that, I conceded that it was much more. She had made it to that finish line before me, but considering my rocky past, that was not surprising. What took me by surprise was the suggestion from the assistant director of the system I was working for that she “might want to look around for something else.”
Margery had not been a great intermediary between Joltin’ Joe and myself. Life with him as a boss was like a trench warfare, and when the big guns were shooting, you hid in the trench. Margery hid well and could be someplace else whenever Joe was about to explode. Typically, at his right hand, you could tell that something nasty was in the offing when she was absent.
So when she offered grandmotherly advice over a surprise lunch, I was taken aback. She explained that couples did not fare well with Joltin’ Joe. While we had been exceptionally discrete, she knew it was only a matter of time before Joe found out and exploited the budding relationship. At that point, there were no guidelines in the personnel handbook forbidding my girlfriend and me from dating. I pointed this out to Margery. She smiled and said, ” When has the handbook ever stopped him from doing whatever he wanted?” the conversation then glided effortlessly from my personal life to our current program initiatives.
I knew that Margery’s advice was on target. Joe could flip out at a misplaced pen on a desk. He wandered the corridors and offices shrouded in a haze of Lucky Strike smoke bringing chaos wherever he entered. One hapless coworker had his desk flipped during a full-fledged Joe harangue. You might lawyer up these days and bring suit for his creating a hostile workplace; then, you worked as hard at staying out of his way as you did in trying to get your work done. Just getting through a week was a triumph.
It took time to arrange an exit, but my now fiance was in nursing school within a year. At the end of that year, we decided to attend a staff Christmas party. We hadn’t been there long before in walked Santa. Joe made his entry in full Santa regalia, a bag of presents over his left shoulder and Lucky Strike smoking from the right hand’s fingers. Sort of a tough guy Santa. Behind him to the right came Margery, dressed as an elf. Most of the attendees stood there, stunned. Knowing Joe, we wondered what sort of presents could be in the sack. Cartons of Luckies’ for his few favorites, and coal for the rest? A prolonged smokers cough succeeded the Ho-Ho-Ho that pealed out. “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!!”
Margery then began to lead Santa around to spread Christmas cheer to all. Eventually, Santa arrived at the little knot of people that included my fiance and me. I introduced her to Joe using her full first name, not the shortened version she had used at work. If you hadn’t known her at work, you might not have recognized the elegantly attired, perfectly coiffed young woman at my side that evening. Josh, a coworker started talking to her about work only to be interrupted by Margery who gently, but firmly took his elbow and guided him away. “Josh? Have you met my husband?”
After a moment, Joe moved on but kept looking back at us. He knew that he had missed something but couldn’t quite place what it was.
Margery soon came back to attend to Santa, leading him to his throne at one side of the room. He glanced our way several times, speaking intently to Margery, whose body language and facial expressions implied that she had no idea of what he was going on about.
The staff began to enjoy the event. We all made an effort to ignore the smoke-shrouded grim Grinch dressed as Santa that sat in the corner. Periodically Santa sent questioning glares my way. To the right of the grim Santa stood Margery. Margery gave me a broad grin, patted Santa, and seemed to enjoy having put one over on Joltin’ Joe.

For more on Joe see: Joltin’ Joe

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